Investigative Journalism

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM….Over at TomPaine.com, Russ Baker mourns the loss of investigative reporting:

With W. Mark Felt?s confession, we now know that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were not making it up….They actually did hold covert meetings in underground parking structures and engage in all manner of classic derring-do. The goings-on came to define the very essence of investigative reporting. A generation of young journalists were thus inspired, and investigative reporting grew and thrived.

But that Golden Age is gone, and we need to figure out why, and what can be done to revive it.

I’m a little skeptical about this. If the post-Woodstein era really was a golden age of investigative journalism, I wish someone could remind me of what got investigated. Last I heard, Iran/Contra went nowhere and George “I was out of the loop” Bush won the 1988 election handily.

Beyond this, Baker posits three causes for the decline of investigative reporting, and I’m not sure I buy them:

  • Media concentration and an obsession with the bottom line have dried up funds for investigative reporting.

    Hmmm. I see Baker’s point here, but I wonder: Did very many newspapers really have big budgets for long-term investigative reporting back in the 70s and 80s? Weren’t Woodward and Bernstein just ordinary beat reporters who did plenty of day-to-day stories in between Watergate scoops?

  • Conflict of interest prevents serious investigative reporting. How can NBC investigate military contractors when it’s owned by General Electric?

    NBC has been owned by RCA since the day it started. Conflict of interest is nothing new there.

    Besides, most serious investigative reporting is done by the big metro/national dailies, and nothing much has changed there either. The New York Times is still independent. The Wall Street Journal is owned by Dow Jones, same as always. The LA Times was independent until a few years ago, and even now is owned by the Tribune Company, a media conglomerate with no ties to non-media companies except the Chicago Cubs. Ditto for the Washington Post, which was a media conglomerate before Woodward and Bernstein had ever heard Richard Nixon’s name.

  • Intimidation from the right has made the media timid.

    Maybe, but this is a little harder to judge. If reporters are really less willing to go after tough stories these days, my guess is that right-wing intimidation isn’t the reason why.

In fact, far from inspiring a generation of investigative titans, I sometimes think that Watergate had a serious negative effect on investigative journalism that no one ever talks about. I call it the “smoking gun syndrome,” and it’s the fact that all that matters in modern scandals is whether you can find an absolutely 100% ironclad smoking gun ? the kind that the Pentagon Papers and Watergate made famous. Come up with a semen stain on a blue dress and you have a feeding frenzy even if the underlying issue is pretty trivial. Fail to find an incriminating document after Ollie North’s shredding party and Reagan and Bush get off scot free from Iran/Contra even though no sentient observer honestly believes they didn’t know what was going on.

Government officials have learned this lesson, of course, and they no longer do things like taping Oval Office conversations. In other words, if there’s truly been a decline in investigative journalism since Watergate, I suspect it’s due less to a decrease in journalistic prowess and more to an increase in governmental coverup ability. Being asked why the shredders were operating late at night may be embarrassing, but it’s better than having a file cabinet full of intact documents that makes the answer obvious.